3rd Avenue march of NYPD riot police (1:30 PM).
Walking from 3rd to 1st Avenue: A True New York Horror Story
The following narrative is a true, first-hand account of an incredible journey from 3rd to 1st Avenue, New York on February 15, 2003. It describes in detail the methods used by the NYPD to keep hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens from assembling at a legal, fully permitted anti-war protest.
Included are pictures and descriptions of a three-hour struggle to walk across two avenues (from 3rd to 1st Avenue) and into the demonstration. Accounts of police brutality, excessive force, and neglect of the U.S. Constitution paint a picture of a well-organized effort to significantly minimize the size of New York City's anti-war protest.
Two friends, Hugh Popenoe and Tom Stalcup, from East Falmouth, MA drove five hours to New York City to attend the anti-war rally. Their unique, three-hour walk to cross two avenues included breaking through illegal police blockades, being surrounded by mounted police, and finally winning a standoff with police at 57th street to gain access to the rally. Hugh's digital camera captured the images displayed in this article.
Destination 1st Avenue
Hugh and I took the subway downtown from my sister's place on 105th Street to about 50th Street, seven blocks from the rally on 1st Avenue. We started walking down 50th St. around 12:30, a half-hour after the rally started. We met up with other protesters funneling their way toward 1st avenue, and slowly began to outnumber non-protesters as we got closer to the rally.
By about 5th Avenue, we found ourselves in packs of hundreds. 4th Avenue was a near standstill, the sidewalks well above capacity. When we finally entered 3rd Avenue, we saw tens of thousands of protesters trying enter the rally. But the NYPD blockaded 50th Street at 3rd Avenue.
The police told us to head up 3rd Avenue to higher street numbers, away from the rally and toward promised access streets. Throngs of us worked our way uptown, toward an entry point. As we walked, the avenue became increasingly more crowded and slow-moving. At one point, it took nearly one hour to walk a single block. Looking ahead and behind, we seemed to number in the hundreds of thousands.
3rd Avenue logjam (1:00 PM).
All the streets we passed were barricaded by temporary wooden fences and guarded by about twenty-five police officers at each street. 3rd Avenue became a loggerhead of protesters, swelling from sidewalk to sidewalk. Though frustrated by the blockades, we were happy with the turnout. We imagined 1st and 2nd Avenue filled to capacity, since we couldn't get in.
Seven Blocks in Two Hours
We made the best of the situation by meeting the other protesters. A Turkish group seemed to be the most festive, singing and chanting. We learned a few Turkish words and marveled at their large, homemade, fifteen-foot wide banner expressing Turkish citizens' opposition to war in Iraq. In an American group of college-aged citizens, there was a young man with a frying pan modified into a gong. He had it hanging from a stick, and I was surprised how loud it was when he hit it.
Periodically, police in riot gear wedged through our peaceful walk, clearing the way for mounted police, small, one-man vehicles, and vans. I had no idea what they were doing. The temporary passages they created quickly refilled with the ever-growing crowd.
NYPD mounted police wedging through a peaceful crowd on 3rd Avenue (1:30 PM).
Up ahead, we could finally see what was causing the standstill. About one hundred police officers were standing across the road, forcing us onto the sidewalks. It had the effect of a twenty lane highway switching immediately into a one-lane, dirt road. When we finally got to the sidewalk, it was around 2:30 PM. We had been trying to reach to protest for two hours.
On the sidewalk, we passed street after street, and all were blockaded and guarded police. By about 58th Street, we began thinking that the police had no intention of letting us into the rally. So there, a large group of us began chanting "Let us through, let us through..." After fifteen minutes or so of chanting, it was clear the police were not going to let us pass.
I was getting hungry and my toes were cold, so I suggested that we get a warm meal and head back to my sisters, where we could watch the rally on TV and in comfort. I visualized what must be a massive crowd on 1st Avenue, whose growth would be insignificant by our joining it. Hugh convinced me to stay another half-hour. We noticed others leaving, as the average age of the protesters was dropping. It was hard to find any more senior citizens around.
Ahead of us, we saw some commotion and it seemed that about 20 people slipped past the barricades. Being six-three, I could peer over the crowd, and I saw the group waving back at us, encouraging us to follow. The police then began pushing us backwards, and the crowd began to squeeze together. After losing some ground to the police, I turned and yelled to the throngs behind me, "Stand Your Ground, Stand Your Ground!" It felt like I was in a scene from Braveheart, and we became a unit, determined to hold our position.
Tension was high, and neither we nor the police seemed to know what to do next. But just then, the young man with the frying-pan-gong hit it once, then twice, making two loud sounds: "CLANG, CLANG." It had the effect of a bugle signaling a charge, and we began to press forward. Then again, CLANG!
The police reacted violently. One or more police officers grabbed the young man with the gong and wrestled him to the ground. I barked out, "Hey, watch it! WATCH IT!, Let him GO!" But by that time the crowd was already moving forward, and we finally broke the police's line. We walked passed the police in victory, our hands raised, and yelling with more intensity than a super-bowl victory.
We celebrated together as we walked toward 2nd Avenue. Then, after a little while and from behind, we heard in fast repetition, "CLANG, CLANG, CLANG..." The young man escaped with his gong and was running passed us to catch up with his friends. We all cheered.
Last Line of Defense
The police on 2nd avenue seemed to be following the same orders as their 3rd Avenue counterparts, which was to blockade all streets accessing the anti-war rally. Again, there were about twenty-five police officers manning the blockades at each street. Hugh and I made it up to one of the wooden fences, where we were face-to-face with the police. Most of them were friendly and approachable, while others were stone-faced. We tried to reason with them, but they said they had to follow orders.
NYPD mounted police flank our posistion at a police barricade on 2nd Avenue (3:00 PM).
At one point, a few protesters tried to run passed the blockade, but they were quickly forced back by swinging billy clubs, just missing their faces. One police officer was particularly violent, and looked psychotic as he swung his club. I pointed him out to other, more reasonable-looking officers, who did nothing to control him. They seemed as intimidated by him as we were.
Behind us, a team of mounted police began flanking our position. Before we knew it, we were surrounded, separated from the larger crowd. I was worried that they were getting ready to arrest us, but we stood there, defiant for about twenty minutes, until we heard that some protesters were getting through at 57th Street.
We made our way down to 57th street to find one of its sidewalks jammed with protesters, about one hundred deep, and into police territory. A few police officers were holding them off, as several others guarded the main blockade across the road.
Then about three or four mounted police officers rode onto the sidewalk, turned their horses sideways, and rode up the sidewalk sideways, squeezing the protesters back onto 2nd Avenue. The police regained control of the sidewalk, but there was still a significant number of protesters at the street blockade, chanting "Let us through, let us through..."
The horses from the sidewalk joined a brigade of about ten more horses out on 2nd Avenue, and then started charging, quickly and violently through the dense crowd, toward the blockade, wedging us in two. We were all appalled and began yelling at the police. After we reassembled, the mounted police charged through us again with the same intensity as before. It was incredible, and I thought that some people must have been injured. We were all deeply disturbed and continued scolding the mounted police, albeit from a safe distance.
Then the horses lined up side by side, facing the crowd as if to charge through us once again, but not as a wedge this time, rather as a line as wide as the crowd itself. As they appeared ready to charge, I noticed a young, petite woman, standing alone, defiantly in front of the horses, shaking her finger and scolding the center rider. It reminded me of Tiananmen Square, where a single Chinese citizen stopped an army tank.
There was a moment of indecision on the part of the mounted police as the outspoken woman continued to chastise them. I took this small window of opportunity to walk up beside her and offer my right elbow. We locked our arms and stood together, facing the horses. A few others locked arms with us, then a dozen or so more. And then a second line formed behind us, with arms locked.
The horses didn't charge. But then strangely, we were signaled by the police behind us at the blockade to go to the rally via the sidewalk-the same sidewalk we had just seen protesters pushed back by the horses.
Like breaking through 3rd Avenue, I felt victorious, but it wasn't the same. This time, my feelings were mixed with deeply disturbing emotions from the unprovoked violence I witnessed.
As I passed the blockade, I asked the police why they were letting us through now, and not earlier. They answered, "it was a communication error." I said, "Whose? Who gave you the order to block us from the rally." They said, "Move along, just be happy you're getting through." I tried reasoning with them, but it only seemed to upset them, so I stopped.
Freedom to Assemble
When we got to 1st Avenue, we were horrified by what we saw. There were hardly any protesters around. We looked down toward the 49th street stage, only to see about a tenth of the numbers we had just left. There was enough room on 1st Avenue to drive a double-wide, except that the police barricades, which this time were running across the avenue at every street, would have to be moved. I felt sick.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters never made it. We never again heard a "CLANG," nor could we see the large Turkish banner anywhere. In fact, we didn't recognize any of these new signs and banners. We were just a small minority who persevered, leaving behind throngs of our fellow citizens who had no idea how much room was really available at the rally.
Thinking back on that moment of triumph when we stopped the horses from charging, I realized we won very little. Behind the horses were hundreds of thousands of protesters that were never let though. Once our small, resilient crowd of about two or three hundred got through, there must have been another "communication error," that reinstated the policy to blockade 57th and all other streets connecting to 1st Avenue.
After standing there, dumbfounded for several minutes, we noticed that there were loud speakers blaring messages from the activists on stage. Next to the speakers were huge television screens with close-ups of the activists. The messages lifted our spirits, just in time for the television screens to malfunction. But because of the malfunction I suppose, we were allowed to move closer to the 49th street stage.
We then continued, unimpeded by the police, all the way to within about 200 yards of the stage. It took five minutes to walk the seven blocks down 1st Avenue-a two-hour improvement over our time to walk up 3rd.
The rally was still festive. People were dancing to music, then listening to activists who were as uplifting as they were diverse, all united in opposition to war with Iraq. I especially enjoyed a Palestinian dance and the accompanying music.
After the Arabic music and when the MC was introducing a new band, we began hearing a familiar chant: "Let Us Through, Let Us Through,..." and we joined in as if by instinct. Soon protesters were drowning out the loudspeakers, and a sidewalk barrier was moved aside. About fifty of us made it through and into the press area, only feet in front of the stage, as a band began to play.
I stood up on a lone chair that seemed to be reserved for me, lifted up my sign high, and waved it to the music. It read, "KOFI, Please STOP my President." We all danced in celebration to several more songs, until the rally ended.
This is CNN
Photo from the press area (4:30 PM).
Finding ourselves in the press area when the rally ended, we had direct access to CNN and other national news outlets. We also had an incredible story of a three-hour trek, fighting for our right to assemble, with tales of police brutality and an organized disregard of the Constitution. We felt inclined to tell our story, and we approached several journalists. Hugh gave a live radio interview on the spot.
An independent reporter who was as appalled by our story as we were, told CNN's correspondent to interview us on camera. The reporter interrupted the correspondent's live, on-air wrap-up to tell her. When he realized it, he let her finish. After she finished, he apologized, but insisted that she hear our story.
Then someone who I assume was a CNN producer said that CNN had already covered some of the events related to access to the demonstration, and was not interested in interviewing us.
On our way home in the New York subway system, we met up with three or four groups of about twenty or so protesters, and the question of the day was, "Did you make it in?" No protester we met on the way home made it into the rally, and they were shocked to hear that 1st Avenue was a relative ghost town compared to 3rd. Some said they never made it past 5th.
When we returned to my sister's place, we switched on CNN to see their reporting of the rally. Their reporting seemed to focus on protests outside the US, some of which may have been larger. But CNN's cameras on 1st Avenue couldn't see, nor was their correspondent interested in the hundreds of other protests occurring on every street corner of 2nd, 3rd, and higher avenues, where America's First Amendment was trampled upon by mounted police and communication errors.
The biggest irony of the day was how the United States of America, the self-appointed worldwide defender of democracy viciously blocked its citizens from peaceably assembling, while nearly every other country in the world (Iraq included) allowed their citizens to march freely, in opposition to one of humankind's worst horrors.